Marvel Studios haven’t made a bad film yet but they’ve waded in mediocrity across their last two films: Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier. Earth centric adventures, familiar characters and MacGuffins galore; things were starting to get dull. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy gate crashes Marvel’s cinematic stable and instantly becomes the life of the party. Filmmaker James Gunn delivers a rocking space odyssey with the perfect band of misfits in a bountiful outer universe to explore.
Deep in the cosmos a manhunt is on to find the human outlaw, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who is in possession of an orb with power to destroy worlds. A radical from the alien race the Kree, Ronan (Lee Pace), is working to find Quill, get the orb and deliver it to Thanos (the alien with the big chin from The Avengers mid-credit tag, now voiced by Josh Brolin). When Quill discovers the evil orb plan he forms an anti-Ronan squad made up of an assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a brute named Drax (Dave Bautista), a genetically engineered rodent, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a talking alien tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel).
The training wheels are off with Guardians of the Galaxy and it’s refreshing to be in the depths of space exploring new worlds, far removed from the familiar vistas of Marvel films. There’s a declaration of adventure as Quill hits play on a Walkman in one of the opening scenes and dances around ruins on a distant planet. Every environment is captivating and the visual details are incredible. Senses go into overdrive with the varieties of environments, spaceships and alien races, all in various shades of the amazing colours of the stunning nebulas spied by deep space telescopes. The digital effects beautifully craft these locales, and they look a little beat up and it all feels lived in.
Gunn isn’t afraid to proclaim his influences and there are shades of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark early on but he stamps on material with his sense of humour. Pratt’s Quill is challenging the spirit of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones days, and the Rocket and Groot relationship is an oddball mirror of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Nicole Pearlman’s script, with re-writes from Gunn, fills the film with mirth and meta-references that include an acknowledgement of the MacGuffin structure of the plot when Quill asks if the orb has an Ark of Covenant or Maltese Falcon vibe. It’s clever and self-aware in an effortless way that works to maximum effect. Gunn also works a cool soundtrack into Guardians of the Galaxy that acts as Quill’s tether to his past and the people on Earth he lost, mainly his mother, who made her son a tape of her favourite songs titled ‘awesome mix volume one’. Tracks from The Runaways, 10CC, The Jackson 5, Elvin Bishop and more are expertly deployed.
The story bounces around in ‘meanwhile’ mode for a little as the narrative tracks the course of the Guardians and the big bad Ronan. It’s standard Marvel procedure and the structure is similar to The Avengers with the Guardians getting beaten down and torn apart in order to realise their mistakes and become a team. What separates Guardians of the Galaxy apart from their costumed counterparts is that they’re all orphans and a dysfunctional family forms as they bond. They’re also missing the gloss of the traditional ‘superheroes’ and come across as a bite-size cosmic Dirty Dozen.
Pratt’s Quill is a scruffy protagonist and the actor walks the line perfectly between executing the action and comedy without allowing the film to go into a tonal death spin. Saldana ensures you walk out of the cinema believing Gamora is the most dangerous woman in the universe and her performance is mirrored by Karen Gillian in henchwoman mode as the deadly Nebula. Bautista’s dead pan Drax is a nice surprise in the realm of WWE wrestlers becoming actors while Rocket and Groot buck their existence as only digital creations and become engaging characters. Long-time Gunn collaborator (and good luck charm), Michael Rooker, excellently brings his special brand of hillbilly tough guy to playing Quill’s mentor Youndu. Pace loses out a little because he’s stuck with a role that’s jammed on menacing mode and there’s no depth to the character beyond the bad guy trappings. The villains are underdeveloped in general and adhere to the usual revenge tactics of most superhero tales.
One last trick Gunn manages is to successfully pull off is executing Guardians of the Galaxy as a contained solo team adventure while setting up story points to be hit in future Marvel films. The film is lush with the usual nods to other movies in the franchise as well as signalling the arrival of new characters and narrative arcs.
Going back to Earth is going to be hard with the next line up of Marvel films (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man) because Guardians of the Galaxy offers a different experience that’s wild, adventurous and a ridiculous amount of fun.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW